Popularly known as Athens of the East, Madurai, like Varanasi, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in India. Situated on the banks of Vaigai River in Tamil Nadu, the city is renowned across the world for its Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple.
Madurai dons many hats. It is a pilgrim town, a popular tourist destination, a cultural hotspot, Pandyan imperial capital, besides being famous for its food and cuisine, impressive architecture, shopping and endearing people.
Madurai is known by several names. City of Junction (Koodal nagaram), City of Jasmine (Malligai maanagar), Temple city (Koil maanagar), City that never sleeps (Thoonga nagaram) and City of four junctions (Naanmada koodal) are among the soubriquets of the city.
The city even finds mention in the Tamil classical epic Silappatikaram. The epic revolves around Kannagi who avenges her husband’s death by destroying the Pandyan kingdom. The city’s recorded history goes back to the 3rd century BC. It is mentioned by Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to India and Kautilya.
The Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple is the geographical centre and the fulcrum around which the daily life of the locals revolves. Laid out in the shape of square, a series of concentric streets culminating from the temple. The squares named after Tamil month names – Aadi, Chittirai, Avani-moola and Masi streets –have retained their traditional names. The original temple was sacked by Muslim invader Malik Kafur in 1310. The present structure is believed to have been built during 1623 to 1655 CE.
Besides being a pilgrimage town, Madurai is an important industrial hub of Tamil Nadu. Motorcycle major TVS group, IT and ITES majors like Satyam, textile industries and industrial units connected to automobiles are located in Madurai. The city also exports its famed jasmine flowers known as Madurai Malligai.
The city also played a major role in the Indian independence movement. Mahatma Gandhi decided to switch to wearing a loin cloth after seeing agricultural labourers wearing it in Madurai.
Madurai’s festivals are also popular and also attract lots of visitors. Meenakshi Tirukalyanam, the 10-day annual festival celebrated during April–May, attracts over one million visitors. The Jallikattu, the game of taming of angry bulls, is similar to the Pampalona Bull Run held in Spain.
- Madurai tends to be very hot during summer. Do not forget to carry cap, sunglasses and water bottles.
- Avoid visiting the temple during noon as no footwear is allowed inside the temple and you will have to walk bare foot on the stone paved floor. Choose early morning or late evening.
According to a legend associated with Madurai, the city was originally a forest known as Kadambavanam. A farmer named Dhananjaya chanced upon Indra, the king of Gods worshipping a swayambhu Shivling. The farmer reported it to King Kulasekara Pandyan. The king cleared the forest and built a temple around the Ling.
A temple and a city surrounding it soon took shape. On the day of the city’s christening, Shiva himself appeared and drops of nectar fell from his hair. Hence, the place was named Madurai, derived from madhuram meaning sweetness in Tamil.
Madurai was the capital of the Pandyan kingdom and later ruled by Cholas. It was during the rule of the Pandyas that the Meenakshi Amman temple and other structures were built.
The city became a part of Delhi Sultanate when Malik Kafur invaded the region. The city later became the capital of independent Islamic kingdom called the Ma'bar Sultanate. It became part of the Vijayanagar Empire and when their rule weakened, it became an independent kingdom under the Nayaks. Puthu Mandapam and Thirumalai Nayak’s palace were constructed during the rule of the Nayaks. Madurai was annexed by the British East India Company and became a part of the Madras Presidency in 1801.
- Soil from the Gandhi Museum, where ashes of Mahatma Gandhi are interred, were taken to Cleveland in USA, to be part of Cleveland Cultural Gardens (CCG). CCG are a collection of public gardens located in Rockefeller Park in Cleveland, Ohio.
- According to legend, Porthamarai Kulam (pond with the golden lotus) can judge the merit of a new piece of literature. When placed in the pond, poorly written works are believed to sink while scholastic ones are believed to float. Tirukkural by Tiruvalluvar was one such work.
Being a temple town, rituals and traditions commands a lot of influence among the locals. Since the daily life of the locals revolves around the Meenakshi Amman temple, head to the town’s epicentre to understand its culture and heritage. Temple ceremonies are accompanied by nadhaswaram (pipe instrument) and tavil (percussion instrument). Participating in the circumambulations of the central temple is believed to accord spiritual benefits as the temple and the surrounding steets form a giant mandala.
Madurai boasts of several museums which provide a peek into the history of the city and events associated with it. The Temple Art museum and Archaeological museum are worth a visit. Head to the Gandhi museum which exhibits the blood stained clothes of Mahatma which he was wearing at the time of his assassination.
Festivals attract a lot of tourists and are very colourful. Chithirai Festival and Avanimoolam Festival are the popular temple festivals. Pongal is the harvest festival and celebrated over three days. High point of the festival is the Jallikattu events held in many villages.
Cotton fabrics, hand-woven silk and batik textiles, bell-metal lamps, bronze images, wood and stone carvings are some of the things to shop for in Madurai. East Masi street, South Avani Moola and Town Hall Road are some of the most prominent shopping areas. The main commercial activity is concentrated around the Meenakshi Temple. Head to the Puthumandapam if you plan to buy cottons or handloom textiles. Government Poompuhar Handicrafts Shop, and Cottage Arts Emporium are good places to buy handicrafts and traditional items. Sungudi saris are unique to Madurai and very popular. Silk saris are another thing which can be bought in Madurai.
Where to stay
Madurai offers a plethora of options for stay. Right from hostels, budget, mid-range to star hotels, the temple city offers it all. Though many of the budget accommodations are located close to the railway station, some are located close to the Meenakshi temple. Madurai is a small town and options to travel in the city are also available, so distances should not be a concern. Most of the luxury hotels are located within a 10 km radius of the airport. Weather tends to be quite hot in summer, so it is advisable to book AC rooms.
Where to eat
Hotels, shops and markets in Madurai function 24x7 and it is not for nothing that the city is called Thoonga Nagaram (city that never sleeps). You can get food at any time of the day or night. The city offers some unique flavored drinks like Jigarthanda and Paruthi Pal.
From street stalls to high end restaurants, the city offers it all. Despite being a temple town, restaurants in the city also serve non vegetarian food. Beware! Non vegetarian dishes tend to be very hot and it is not for the faint hearted.
Vegetarians need not despair. Eateries serving authentic Iyengar style meals and breakfast can be found in the city. Some restaurants also offer Rajasthani thalis. Chinese, continental and Chettinad cuisine can be savoured in addition to the ubiquitous South Indian specialities.
Best time to visit
Avoid summer from end March to early June as Madurai tends to get extremely hot. Weather remains pleasant during winter. Best time to visit Madurai is from October to March.